The company says it’s not collecting any new information — just combining existing information from each of its 70 different services, like Gmail, YouTube, and the social network Google+, to come up with one giant profile for each Google user.
Google says its new policy is easier to understand than its old one and that combining data will allow the company to help users. For example, as you head out for a meeting, Google might be able to tell you if you’re going to be late by automatically reading the appointments on your Google calendar, finding your location from your Android smart phone, and analyzing traffic data.
The new policy goes into effect despite repeated warnings from the European Union, and Google joining the Digital Advertising Alliance — a coalition of major internet companies that supported White House measures that aim to protect personal privacy on the web, including a do-not-track option.
So what does this all mean for internet privacy, and what should you know before the new Google policy goes into effect?
Julia Angwin, Senior Technology Reporter for the Wall Street Journal, said Google's new policy may have serious implications for users' personal privacy.
"Google had privacy policies for all of its different services, like YouTube, Gmail, and its search engines. Now it's consolidating them into one master policy that is going to combine data. For instance, your YouTube searches might inform the search results that you get on Google," Angwin said.
It is unknown if and how Google will use the consolidated data, but it has the potential to use it in ways that many find troubling.
"Anyone who has an Android phone — the data that they use on their phone could then be combined with the searches they do on their computer. There's Google Wallet, Gmail, YouTube, Google+, Chrome, Picasa, Google Books. It's very hard to spend a day without visiting one or more Google services," Angwin said. "Social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter are all competing to offer advertisers the best way to target their users. One likely reason that Google is combining all this data is to offer advertisers a more complete picture of the people who visit their sites in order to present more customized ads to them."
Angwin said though there is no 'opt-out' feature, users have other options to avoid Google's personal data consolidation.
"You can decide not to use Google services, which is difficult in some cases. You can also attempt to confuse Google by developing different personas on different services. For instance, if you create a Gmail account, but use a different name, identity, and e-mail address when you log into YouTube, it might be harder for them to correlate and build an uber profile," Angwin explained.
She also suggested that users remove some of Google's compiled history on Google Dashboard or log out of Google services when performing a search. However, Google can still track you even when you’re not logged in to one of its services by storing anonymous data about your web activity through a removable web cookie.
Angwim believes Google's intentions are sincere, but warns about its greater impact on personal privacy.
"I think Google is seriously trying to deliver better services to people," Angwin said. "What is hard about this is that we don't have any laws in this country that prevent that data from being used for other purposes later on. There's no comprehensive privacy law that says you can't resell people's personal data. If Google decided to, it could sell data to employers and say why don't you look up the web browsing history of people you're thinking about hiring and see if any of them have diseases. If they're Googling for diseases, then you probably don't want them on your healthcare plan."
Similarly, Google can turn over its compiled data to law enforcement.
"One thing I always joke about is that you could develop something called 'Google Revolution Trends,' where Google could come up with all sorts of information to identify when revolutiions might be brewing and who the revolutionaries might be," Angwim said. "It's not impossible with this data."
Commentator Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols thinks the new policy is “not a big deal.” As he wrote on ZDNet, “get over it already.”
But 30 state attorneys general have sent a letter to Google saying they find the new policy, “troubling.” European Union officials are warning that it may violate privacy laws, and groups like the Center for Digital Democracy and the Electronic Privacy Information Center say it will cause, “irreparable injury to consumers”.
In Europe and many other Western countries, there are comprehensive privacy laws which set baseline standards for privacy. For instance, some of these standards say people should be able to see the data that's collected about them, and that this data shouldn't be resold without permission from the user.
The Obama Administration has proposed what they call a Privacy Bill of Rights. They are seeking legislation that would establish the same level of baseline privacy protection as other nations. According to Angwin, they've also said that realistically they don't expect the legislation to pass this year. However, they are asking the industry to "step up to the plate and offer some best practices in advance of the legislation."
Google has attempted to make it easier for users to export their data from Google services. A team of engineers at Google called the Data Liberation Front gives users a copy of their compiled data to attempt to give users more control over its use. However, the data also stays in Google's files. Angwin urged users to consider the ineffectiveness of moving Google's compiled data, since other Internet services such as Hotmail and Yahoo have the same privacy policies and risks.
"It is difficult to extricate yourself. Google has a strong network effect. The more people who are on it, the harder it is to leave," she said.
Angwin recommends using some kind of tracking/blocking service like Do Not Track Plus, which blocks tracking from most sites — not just Google.
"One thing you can't do very much about is your cellphone. Right now, there are very limited privacy controls to use on your cellphone," she said. "What I worry about is a future where everything is known about every body by commercial interests and the government. I think that this data can be misused and it's hard to predict how it might be misused, so until there are some baseline protections, I do feel like some healthy paranoia and taking some appropriate measures to protect what you can is not a bad idea."
Google's business model relies on compiling browsing information from its users.
"They are using personal data they collect to sell ads. That is the business model of Google and many other companies. So we think, as consumers, that we're getting these free services, but in fact, we're paying in this other way," Angwin said.
She predicts that a new kind of industry may emerge from Google's controversy, where people pay for their privacy.
"Here and Now", from WBUR in Boston, is an essential midday news magazine for those who want the latest news and expanded conversation on today's hot-button topics.